“Marley was dead, to begin with.” So begins the most enduring holiday tale of all time. But in Charles Dickens’ immortal “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge’s former partner Jacob Marley — dead seven years as Christmas Eve arrives — doesn’t get much to do other than rattle a few chains and announce the imminent arrival of three spirits.
Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken is putting a new spin on this old tale with “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” by Tom Mula, a family-friendly romp filled with imagination, magic, comedy, an impish sprite, spooky wraiths, a condescending astral bureaucrat and the ghost of crusty, old, curmudgeonly Marley at the center of the proceedings.
Dec. 1, a packed opening night audience laughed, shrieked and applauded as a cast of four — three women and a man — played all the parts, forcing the audience to use its imagination to visualize Marley in his chains, a pixie (called a Bogle) flying about the room like Tinker Bell, and Scrooge in his counting house and dank, dreary bedchamber.
Mile Square Theatre always works wonders with its small stage, using a single set to stand in for multiple locations. Here, set designer Tim McMath and technical director Nate Hamm constructed what looks like the interior of a Victorian home as imagined by Tim Burton and Salvador Dalí, with empty frames and bric-a-brac hanging askew from ancient walls.
The cast shines, but credit also goes to Jennifer Fok’s lighting design, which brings all the magic in the story to life, creating the illusion of flickering candles, twinkling stars, gloomy rooms and a celestial waiting room.
Sevrin Anne Mason, a stout, middle-aged woman with streaks of color running through her ratty hair, narrates the play and plays — among other characters — Jacob Marley. In this version of the tale, Marley is tasked by Heaven’s Recordkeeper with redeeming the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge or else facing eternity in … the other place.
Without props or wigs or costume changes (other than a jacket and a nightgown that come and go), Mason brings the wretched Marley to life, making us feel the weight of the chains he forged through a life of meanness and selfishness, the hopelessness of the task he’s given and, finally, the joy that comes from redemption. She also plays two of the Christmas spirits, a small boy and Marley as a young man, bringing them all to life with the power of suggestion.
While Mason’s powerful performance anchors the drama, Dominic Russo as Marley’s Bogle — or helper elf — steals the show by providing most of the laughs. With a light touch and a fey manner, Russo wields sarcasm like a sword, slicing through the darkness of the play with wit and impeccable timing. Imagine, if you can, a Victorian Paul Lynde, wisecracking and wryly commenting on Marley’s travails, often with anachronistic, contemporary jokes that no Victorian would have understood.
The supporting cast makes us believe in the transformative power of theater as well: Jezabel Montero, a blowsy blonde who moves like a dancer, might seem an odd choice for Ebenezer Scrooge, but we all know what Scrooge looks like, whether we picture him as Alastair Sim or Bill Murray. He lives in our minds and it takes no time at all to imprint that image on Montero as she “Bah, humbugs” her way from counting house to bedchamber.
Caturah Brown brings freshness and energy to the role of the Recordkeeper (standing in for St. Peter at the pearly gates), God’s own accountant, who keeps the ledgers on the credits and debits we earn in our lives. I hope Mile Square Theatre brings her back in a bigger role; even while playing a wizened old troll, she sparkles.
Mile Square Theatre usually does comedy well, and director Jenn Haltman helps uphold that tradition. Timing is everything when you’re trying to get a laugh, and she keeps the pacing brisk and precise, especially when the cast interacts with the lighting (which truly makes the magic happen).
So please, watch a film version of “A Christmas Carol” this Yuletide season — the black-and-white one with Sim, or the silly one with Jim Carrey, or Murray’s “Scrooged.” There are plenty to pick from. But by all means, also include a visit to “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” — and bring the entire family — for a fresh, funny and touching take on the age-old story of a Christmas morning miracle. And God bless us, every one!
Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken presents “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol,” Dec. 2-3, 8-10, 15-17 and 21-23 at 8 p.m., and Dec. 3-4, 10-11, 17-18, 21 and 24 at 3 p.m. For information, visit MileSquareTheatre.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.